Jon Wilson is the type of guy who will order a big pile of fried pickles and a tall chocolate peanut butter milkshake before noon, but then only eat half a dozen of them and take just a few sips of the drink.
He’s a guy who you might look at and suppose grew up on a farm in Nebraska (like his celebrity doppelganger, Larry the Cable Guy), but was actually born in Liverpool, England. He’s a guy who can show up to work wearing a Beastie Boys T-shirt and a baseball cap, while all of his male peers have to wear suits, or at least neckties.
That’s Jon Wilson: a model of incongruity.
The host of the “Wilson’s World” segments on the Fox Charlotte TV morning show “Fox News Rising” is a goofball to the nth degree. His resume includes getting kicked out of the Quail Hollow Club for wearing a tiger suit while on air at the PGA golf tournament in 2007 as recurring character Jon Burgundy (modeled after Will Ferrell in the movie “Anchorman”), who recently did an investigative piece on a waterskiing squirrel.
But his irreverent persona belies a softer side – a side that has matured and evolved since he became a husband and a stepfather to two daughters three years ago.
“I don’t really consider myself a journalist or anything like that,” says Wilson, 39. “I’m an entertainer. I’m a storyteller. I tell people’s stories. Sometimes the stories are wild and crazy, and every once in a while, they really touch your heart.”
“I’d done plenty of stories about kids … but once you’ve got one in your life, it hits you differently because you feel more of that connection there.”
“I’m turning into a big softie.”
The local guy
Wilson is also a big Charlotte guy. Since his parents Graham and Barbara settled in Matthews in 1986, he has never been away from the area for long – at least by choice. (His longest absence: two years at Hargrave Military Academy in Chatham, Va., after he had “too good of a time” as an eighth-grader at Sun Valley Middle School in Indian Trail.)
He worked at a McDonald’s on Independence Boulevard and interned at WBT Radio during his junior and senior years at Myers Park High School; he swam and coached at the Dowd YMCA; he took classes at Central Piedmont Community College and UNC Charlotte.
Over the course of several years starting in the late ’90s, Wilson paid his dues.
Screened calls for John Hancock at WBT. Did weekend shifts at 106.5 The END. The night shift at 99.7 The Fox. Some TV commercials, a couple infomercials. Work for the Charlotte Checkers, NASCAR and Clear Channel Communications, a summer as promotions manager for Blockbuster Pavilion (now Verizon Wireless Amphitheatre).
Then, seven Novembers ago, Fox Charlotte hired him to co-host its upstart new morning show. Wilson played the part well and dressed the part, too – suit, tie, well-groomed – but “I think I was … a little too caged.” So when one of the roving reporters left, he saw an opportunity.
“I’d done everything,” he says. “I did traffic reports. I co-hosted. I did the serious news. I did everything there except for the weather during that stretch. (But) I was tired of the tie.”
“We had a couple changes going on, and they said, ‘Hey, you’re really good with real people.’ The things I’d done in the past really helped me – dealing with people, being a Charlotte guy. I knew where all the nooks and crannies were, things that weren’t getting on TV, or good stories.”
“They said, ‘Why don’t you go out –’ and I just ran with it.”
Like that, Wilson’s World was born.
The casual guy
One of the goals for his “Wilson World’s” segments is to convey average-Joe relatability, and part of how he does that is by dressing like an average Joe. The first day we met him, he was wearing a gas-station attendant-type shirt with an iron-on “Wilson” nametag; the next, he sported a T-shirt with his favorite Muppet, Animal. On both of these occasions, he had come straight from work.
“That’s who he is,” says Jim White, general manager for Fox Charlotte. “If we put him in a coat and tie, it would really take away from the way he walks up to kids at Butler High School at 6:30 in the morning. They probably approach him a lot better when he’s more casual. …
“We don’t put him in the same category as (10 p.m. news anchors) Israel Balderas and Morgan Fogarty. That’s not criticism; he’s just a different character. We don’t have to have him be quite as buttoned-up.”
And if Wilson is on TV, there’s always something on his head: a cowboy hat, the Jon Burgundy wig, the Army helmet and full gas mask he donned to lampoon the Democratic National Convention, or – more often than anything else – the USO North Carolina hat he has worn religiously since Memorial Day 2011, when he skydived with the Army Parachute Team over SouthPark. (“A little nod to that day and the reason I was jumping out: Wounded Warriors. I’m the board of the USO now for Charlotte, so a little nod to them as well.”)
Wilson says he doesn’t often wear a hat when not on the job, but over four visits with him, it came off only once, for just a few seconds. “I have a gnarly head,” he says, running his hand over his scalp inside the Fox Charlotte building in east Charlotte. “I just know that. Nobody wants to see this.”
The funny/serious guy
So Wilson might not have the best head on local TV. He might not be the best-dressed. He also might not be the best reporter and probably will never win any significant awards in his current role.
After all, he includes in his highlight reel the time in 2007 when he decided to test the security around Tiger Woods at the Wachovia Championship and eventually was ejected for wearing a tiger suit. And the time this past summer when he told astonished viewers – during the Jon Burgundy bit at Charlotte Motor Speedway – that a squirrel was urinating on his head. (It, in fact, was not.)
More than once, these bits have left his cohorts back in the studio speechless. “This isn’t all scripted, and everybody’s in on it. This isn’t the Kardashians. It’s reality TV in its truest form,” says “Fox News Rising” co-host Derek James, who is also a friend of Wilson’s. “It actually flashes back to the days of TV before it was so corporate, before (stations) were so worried about everything. Trying stuff just doesn’t happen as much anymore.”
But Wilson is more than just a clown. Since childhood, he’s had a soft spot for the Salvation Army and the American Red Cross: Both organizations came through at times of need for his family. His experience with the USO has made an impact. He has repeatedly aired stories that support those causes.
He also isn’t afraid to show emotion. Last year, while doing an interview with Margretha Pinkney of Huntersville – whose son Nikko died in a house fire – he wept on camera.
“When I first met him, it was like meeting an old friend,” says Pinkney, who campaigns for the Red Cross and United Way about the need for smoke detectors in the home. “He has a heart of gold.”
The family guy
These days, when he recalls his favorite moments on the show, there are as many about compassion as there are about comedy.
“I like all the goofiness and the fun and the entertaining on TV,” Wilson says. But “as everybody gets older, we appreciate where people have been, and as we appreciate our own journey and our own place in the world, you can kind of take a step back a little bit and appreciate other people’s stories – their journey, what they’ve been on.”
Wilson’s own journey includes his nearly three-year marriage to Bec (their anniversary is on Halloween), who brought two children into the relationship: Amanda, now 20, and Chloe, who was 6 when Wilson met her and is now 11.
He has embraced his role as a father figure for Chloe. “They’re inseparable,” Bec Wilson says. “They do all the grocery shopping together. He’s off sooner than I am, so they hang out in the afternoons and have dinner ready for me. He’s a great dad.”
“He’s always just been this lovable, fun guy that happens to have a real public job.”
What you see, in other words, is what you get with Jon Wilson: a guy who puts you at ease. A guy who looks like someone you would love to grab a drink with, but one you’d also trust to help your grandmother across the street. A guy who, from one morning to the next, is probably going to make you smile if you catch him on TV. Or a guy who at least will try.
“There’s so much going on where it’s just doom and gloom and death and destruction on TV,” Wilson says, “and if I can put a smile on somebody’s face in the morning … gosh, I mean, that’s a job? I really like that. It really is an adventure every day.”